Is Thai harder or easier than Vietnamese?

Introduction

Did you know about half of all languages are tonal? This means the same word, said with two different tones, means two different things. Thai and Vietnamese are two of these tonal languages.

The two countries are close to each other, both in Southeast Asia. Despite this, the languages are somewhat different from one another.

So, is Thai harder or easier than Vietnamese? Vietnamese is an easier language to learn. Here’s why.

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Learning the Vietnamese and Thai alphabets

The Vietnamese and Thai alphabets have nothing in common. But, as it is based on the Latin alphabet, the Vietnamese alphabet looks more familiar to English speakers.

The Vietnamese alphabet has 29 letters—12 vowels and 17 consonants. Most of the letters are the same as in English. They make slightly different sounds, though.

In addition, it has letters that don’t exist in the Latin alphabet. For instance, the letter đ in Vietnamese.

The Thai alphabet contains a total of 72 characters—44 consonants and 28 vowels. This is over twice the number of letters in Vietnamese.

Some characters look similar and have tiny differences. So it takes a lot of rote memorization and flashcards.

Which is easier to read: Vietnamese or Thai?

Vietnamese and Thai are both written and read left to right. This part comes naturally to English speakers.

There is one key difference between reading Vietnamese and reading Thai, though. Let’s look at both below.

The Vietnamese sentence is difficult to read. But, you would be close by using the sounds in English.

Thai, on the other hand, can't be read at all. The only way to read the Thai sentence is to have a working knowledge of its alphabet already.

How easy is it to read Vietnamese?

Many Vietnamese letters are similar to their English counterpart, with a slight adjustment to the pronunciation.

There are 12 vowels in Vietnamese. Here are their different sounds.

There is only one consonant that doesn’t exist in English, đ. It makes the d sound we are used to in English.

Learning to read Vietnamese is not difficult for beginners. The unfamiliar vowels take extra practice. The use of the Latin alphabet allows beginners to start reading in a short time.

How easy is it to read Thai?

Thai takes longer. It is a whole new alphabet to learn. And none of the characters look like English letters.

Common Thai Consonants

Common Thai Vowels

The character, อ, is a placeholder. Either it would stay like this, and the speaker would only pronounce the vowel sound. Or it would be replaced with another consonant.

Another thing to know is the placement of vowels. You find them all around the consonants. Above, below, before, and after the consonants. Look at these examples. อ is a placeholder.

Above
Word: ปี (bpee)
Meaning: year
Vowel: อี (ee — long)

Below
Word: งู (ngoo)
Meaning: snake
Vowel: อู (oo — long)

Before
Word: เวลา (weehh-laa)
Meaning: time
Vowel: เอ (eehh — long)

After
Word: มา (maa)
Meaning: come
Vowel: อา (aa — long)

Before and after
Word: เกาะ (gawh)
Meaning: island
Vowels: เอาะ (awh — short)

Before, after, and above
Word: เรียน (rian)
Meaning: learn
Vowels: เอีย (ia — long)

This provides a significant barrier to reading as beginners adjust.

One thing is essential to mention. Northern and Southern Thai are different from each other. So different that people from the north and south have difficulty understanding each other.

However, Central Thai is the official language. And people from the north and south can understand Central Thai.

Northern Thai has its own writing system, too.

Word: Difficult
Central Thai: ยาก (yaak)
Northern Thai: ᨿᩣ᩠ᨠ (ngak)

Word: Speak
Central Thai: พูด (pood)
Northern Thai: ᩋᩪ᩶ (oo)

Word: No
Central Thai: ไม่ (mai)
Northern Thai: ᨷᩴ᩵ (boh)

This won’t impact a student’s learning. But a student may encounter it when traveling through Northern Thailand.

Vietnamese tones or Thai tones: which are easier to master when reading?

Vietnamese makes it easy to read the tonal system. In Thai, it's going to be more challenging to figure out the tone.

In Vietnamese, there are five tonal markers. These tell precisely the tone to use. It’s as simple as remembering the tone markers.

In Thai, it is more complicated. There are more things to take into factor to get the correct tone.

Let’s look at examples of how Vietnamese and Thai tones are different.

Vietnamese tones

Tone name: ngang
Tone Type: high, flat tone
Marking: none
Example: ma (ghost)

Tone name: huyền
Tone Type: starts low, stays low
Marking: `
Example: mà (which, that)

Tone name: sắc
Tone Type: starts high, goes higher
Marking:’
Example: má (mother; cheek)

Tone name: nặng
Tone Type: short and low tone
Marking: .
Example: mạ (rice seedling)

Tone name: hỏi
Tone Type: tone rises, like asking a question
Marking: ̉
Example: mả (tomb)

Tone name: ngã
Tone Type: tone rises but is cut short
Marking: ~
Example: mã (horse)

Thai Tones

Word: จาน (jaan - plate)
Tone Type: Mid-tone

Word: ก่อน (gorn - before)
Tone Type: Low tone

Word: บ้าน (baan - house)
Tone Type: falling

Word: ร้อน (ron - hot)
Tone Type: high

Word: หมา (maa - dog)
Tone type: rising

Thai has tone markers as well. They do not have a simple system to follow, though. Here are the Thai tones and their names.

Three things determine the tone of a word in Thai.

Once we find these, we have one of the five tones in Thai. There are rules to follow to know the tone, but it is beyond the scope of this article.

This chart is a helpful introduction and resource to use.

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Learning Vietnamese and Thai grammar

Thai and Vietnamese grammar is easy for English speakers when starting out. They both follow the same structure as English.

All three languages follow a subject + verb + object sentence structure.

Where Thai and Vietnamese are different from English is tenses. English has 12 tenses in total. Thai and Vietnamese have none. This is one less thing for learners to worry about when learning the languages.

No tenses in Vietnamese and Thai makes it easy

Instead of tenses, both languages show the time something was done using time words. These words are placed after the verb, usually to show the time of an action.

Let’s look at examples.

Useful Vietnamese and Thai past time words

Already

Yesterday

Last year

Useful Vietnamese and Thai present time words

To show a continuous action

Today

Now

Useful Vietnamese and Thai future time words

Will

Tomorrow

Next year

Words in both languages share similar patterns. For example, Thai uses นี้ (nee) when talking about this one.

Vietnamese does the same with the word nay.

How do I ask questions in Vietnamese and Thai?

Questions in Vietnamese and Thai have similarities. For example, Thai places question words at the end of the sentence. The same applies to Vietnamese.

Let’s look at an example. Here is how we can ask how much something costs.

Vietnamese: Chi phí bao nhiêu?
Transliteration: Chi fee bao niew
Literal translation: Expense how much?
Question word: bao nhiêu (how much/many)

Thai: ราคาเท่าไหร่คะ?
Transliteration: raakaa tao rai ka? (Female speaker)
Literal translation: Price how much?
Question word: เท่าไหร่ (how much — price)

Both of the question words are at the end of the sentences. In Vietnamese, the question word can go at the beginning, too.

Vietnamese: Tại sao bạn thích đến thăm Việt Nam?
Transliteration: Tai são ban tick duen tham Vietnam?
Literal translation: Why you like visit Vietnam?
Question word: Tại sao (why)

Vietnamese: Khi nào bạn đi Hà Nội?
Transliteration: Nee nao ban dee Hanoi?
Literal translation: When do you go Hanoi?
Question word: Khi nào (when)

How do I make negative sentences in Vietnamese and Thai?

Creating negative sentences in both Vietnamese and Thai is easy. It’s as simple as putting ‘no’ in front of the main verb.

In Thai, this word is ไม่. In Vietnamese, it is không.

Vietnamese: Tôi không thích hải sản.
Transliteration: Dtoi kong tick hai saan.
Literal translation: I no like seafood.

Thai: ฉันไม่ชอบอาหารทะเลคะ.
Transliteration: Chan mai chob aa-haan ta-lay ka. (Female speaker)
Literal translation: I no like food sea.

This area is beginner-friendly. No need to worry about contractions or the placement of the negative part. Once we find the main verb, we can easily make negative sentences.

Learn Vietnamese and Thai pronunciation

Vietnamese and Thai both have tones, and they’re both difficult to learn

Both languages rely on tones for word meaning. This is the most challenging area for beginners.

People say Vietnamese has eight tones. This is because of minor differences in individual tones. Officially, there are six tones.

If a learner is coming from a language with no tones, more practice is vital.

Thai tones are easy to hear once a learner immerses themselves in the language. The tones are distinguishable. So there won’t be an issue confusing them.

Now, let’s look at how the pronunciation of the tones changes the meaning.

This is where foreigners end up looking silly but in a good way!

Vietnamese

Word: tao
Meaning: me, I
Tone: Mid-high

Word: táo
Meaning: apple
Tone: Rising

Word: tào (tao)
Meaning: nonsense
Tone: Falling

Word: tạo
Meaning: Low

Word: tảo
Meaning: algae
Tone: Low to high

Thai

Word: เข่า (khao)
Meaning: knee
Tone: Low

Word: เข้า (khao)
Meaning: to enter
Tone: Falling

Word: เขา (khao)
Meaning: he/she/they
Tone: Rising

Each language has its share of similar-sounding words. It’s part of the fun of learning a language. You will look and feel embarrassed, but you learn from it.

And, besides, native speakers are happy you’re trying. The effort is enough for them.

Conclusion

As with every language, it’s going to come down to determination. If a learner puts in the hours, they’ll get a quicker return.

Vietnamese is easier than Thai. The use of the Latin alphabet is easier to learn and start reading.

The pronunciation and grammar are similar and take an equal amount of time to learn. The Thai alphabet has a more significant learning curve and therefore takes longer.

And, during that time, a learner could be advancing in Vietnamese at a faster rate.

PS: You can use our free web application to record your own Thai or Vietnamese phrases.